Yesterday, April 2nd was World Autism Awareness Day, a nationally observed day, encouraging member States of the United Nations to take measures to ra
Yesterday, April 2nd was World Autism Awareness Day, a nationally observed day, encouraging member States of the United Nations to take measures to raise awareness about children with autism throughout the world. Here in Nigeria, Dotun Akande is quite passionate about autism and has been at the fore front of raising awareness about it. A certified therapist in Autism, she is the Founder and Proprietress of Patrick Speech and Languages Centre as well as Pure Souls Learning Foundation for individuals living with autism, the first of its kind designed centre for autistic individuals in Nigeria. Within a decade of its existence, the centre has grown to become a pillar of support to families struggling with the challenges of autism in Nigeria.
That Dotun Akande is a rare gem who chose to tread where others wouldn’t dare is simply stating the obvious. A decade ago, she quit her rising career in one of the country’s leading financial institutions, forgoing the perks attached to her office and followed her dream to cater to autistic children, not only putting smiles on their faces but that of their families as well. Ten years after she made that decision, she counts her blessings, proud to be living her dreams.
At the Patrick Speech and Language Centre, where she has been able to build a curriculum that meets the need of each student, she exudes a high level of professionalism such that it is easy to conclude that she has an array of qualifications in the field of autism. She was however quick to debunk this.
“I learnt on the job. Besides going for a short course, I learnt everything I know, working with our students. I have in-house trainings with my staff where we brainstorm and discuss how we can help our students in areas they are struggling with and we also go for trainings outside the country.”
With an autistic child, naturally, her interest in autism became piqued prompting her to leave her already thriving career to face a terrain many were not familiar with at the time she started out.
“My son began talking at the age of 6 but was learning well without missing classes even though he struggled with some subjects. I got him a speech and music therapist to help him through. Seeing that I was making progress with my son, I decided to help others going through similar situation who do not know what to do. I must say that unless you seek early help for a child who is autistic, the child’s development will become stunted into adulthood.”
Her personal journey was one that took years of patience and perseverance. She recalled that it was a very challenging journey, one that almost tore her apart.
“It was so hard. Sometimes I could not handle it and would just break down. At that point, my husband will come in and take up whatever I was going to teach him. I wasn’t a very patient person, and that touched my patience.
“There were times I challenged God on why he would make me go through such an experience. But at every point of my challenge, He showed up. It was at one of those moments that my son said his first words, ‘Give me my pencil’ and for another six months he didn’t say anything. That gave me so much comfort, hope and encouragement.
“I am glad and blessed that we were able to get through it. My son is in the University now, studying Mathematics, which is the subject he loves most, and he is doing very well. He is developed to a stage where I can now leave him on his own”, she said with a very proud smile.
Recent statistic from the Center for Disease Control indicates that autism is the fastest growing developmental disability with a 10-17 per cent annual growth rate. It is five times more common than Down’s syndrome and three times more common than juvenile diabetes. It is a problem that affects children, families, schools and consequently, the nation and world at large. Sadly many are still not aware of what autism is. She tells how to identify an autistic child.
“The signs are complex but quite easy to recognize if you are in that field. Most of the signs come in the area of communication; the child not talking, keeps saying the same thing over and over, repeats a question, spaces out or just stares at you when you call his or her name.
“Some children are hyperactive while others have very low attention. Some have funny behavior, either rocking in one position, looking from the corner of the eyes, flipping their fingers or sometimes lining up objects in a particular order, or laughing or smiling incessantly for no reason at all. They don’t socialize with other children, they like to play alone.”
She however stressed that no two diagnosis are ever the same. That a child exhibits one of these signs isn’t enough, it has to be a combination of the aforementioned signs. She added that even though the cause of autism is not yet known, research on its cause is still ongoing.
“Some say it is genetic while others say it is environmental. The area of vaccine has been dispelled medically, but it still remains a very controversial topic as some parents insist that their child starts to exhibit signs after vaccination. We really cannot pinpoint the cause.
Be that as it may, individuals living with autism eventually learn to cope and adapt, with many overcoming autism with no trace.
“However, individuals living with autism have a lot of added skills beyond what we can see. They can gain speech, go through school to the University level, graduate, get married, have children and live a normal life. Quite a number of them have gone through the centre and are in mainstream schools doing very well.”
Ironically, she noted that while some parents keep the school posted on the progress of their wards some don’t want people to know their children have been through the school for fear of the child being labeled.
“It is quite understandable. All we want is for their wards to live full and functional lives,” she says.
In a bid to sensitize the public about autism, the centre has successfully produced four short films – Silver Lining, ‘Emere,’ both targeted at regular educated families, The Maid, targeted at domestic helps and Demystifying Autism, targeted at teenagers. For these, the centre received nominations from both Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards (AMVCA) and Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). It soon became obvious that her efforts would never go unnoticed when in 2015, she became an ambassador for Vlisco, a renowned Dutch fashion textile brand, which also supports and sponsors the center’s programmes. Also, the centre got honoured by the Lagos State Government in recognition of their efforts at enrolling autistic students from public schools in the State.
Besides the fact that she is not only passionate about what she does but has finds absolute fulfillment in it, she however, still yearns for more as she has very big dreams for the centre.
“We want to build our permanent site to accommodate a vocational centre and a boarding facility so we can support families on a weekly basis. That way, students can come during the week and go home over the weekend. It will be like a respite centre. It will even help us do our work better. We have approached the Lagos State Government to support us, either by giving us land or by building something bigger for us.
“We also want to appeal to the government to sensitize the special education unit, it is a big avenue for job creation. If they train people in different disabilities and get them certified, families can employ their services.
“We intend to be the best, if not in Africa, but in West Africa. We want people to come here and learn from what we have done.